Xiao Ye: A Hainanese Chicken Rice Discovery




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There has been a flurry of buzz recently about Xiao Ye, a sliver of a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that would be easy to miss — except that you could just look for the gaggle of twenty-something Asians clogging up the narrow sidewalk, waiting for tables.

The prognosis of this Too-Cool-For-You Taiwanese comfort food restaurant that plasters the word “Dericious” above its kitchen and has christened its dishes with cutesy names that are also light jabs at Asians hasn’t always been good. Although chef Eddie Huang’s “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken” has gotten some raves in online reviews, the insatiable Gael Greene pronounced it too dry, “like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.” Last week, there was a final straw — Eddie (first known for Baohaus, the popular Taiwanese sandwich shop) announced on his blog, Fresh Off The Boat, that he was overhauling his menu after reading a lukewarm review on a New York food blog that expressed disappointment in Xiao Ye’s “normal” and generically flavored food.” As an experiment, Eddie, who calls his dishes “bootie call food” designed for late-night eating, has added items like Cheeto fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese to the menu.

I don’t disagree with the criticism — when Gael and I hiked over to the LES for a catchup dinner a few weeks ago, the place had both misses and hits. Midway through dinner, we even decided to order a few more dishes after wondering if perhaps we had just made some wrong choices. 

I will say this, though — the restaurant has one shining spot that made this Singaporean transplant very happy: its Hainanese chicken rice (listed on the menu as “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken” for $15) is a delight.

In the 16 years that I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve searched eateries all over for acceptable versions of the incredible dishes of my home country. I’ve managed to find decent versions of chicken curry, satay, tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu that’s filled with julienned vegetables and drowned in spicy peanut sauce) and even oyster omelette, Teochew style. 

Good Hainanese chicken rice, however, was more elusive. This dish basically consists of chicken (steamed, boiled or roasted) and paired with a fragrant oily rice that’s been steeped in a broth with chicken fat and vanilla-like pandan leaves and a phalanx of condiments — minced ginger, garlicky chili sauce and “dark sauce,” a Southeast Asian soy sauce that’s sweet and as thick as molasses. It may sound easy, but the combination is harder to pull off than you’d think.

In the years that I’ve eaten my way through America, I had never sampled a passable version of chicken rice. Xiao Ye’s isn’t a dead ringer for the versions you’ll find in Singaporean hawker centers, of course.

But it’s not bad. And trust me, that’s high praise from this finicky Singaporean.

First off, a full disclosure: I know Eddie Huang. Not well at all, but we were on an Asian food panel together at Time Inc. this spring and he does know what I look like.

When I walked into Xiao Ye with the incognito Gael Greene, Eddie came over to greet me. I don’t let acquaintances color my opinions on food, of course — and we had come starving.

“I can’t wait to try your Hainanese chicken rice,” I said immediately. Eddie, who not only knew I was from Singapore but also that I have written a food memoir about Singapore, looked truly nervous. “Well … I hope you like it!” he said.

If you’ve had Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore, you may be disappointed. Unlike in Singapore where the rice itself and the condiments are really the stars of the show, Xiao Ye’s is all about the chicken.

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As much as I fully expected to hate Eddie’s, after years of sampling disappointing chicken rice dishes in the U.S., I found myself actually enjoying it. The chicken was juicy and tender, with each bite just oozing with flavor. I also liked that you could taste slight hints of ginger with each bite. Sure, the pieces didn’t have that layer of gelatinized drippings between the meat and its skin that makes Boon Tong Kee in Singapore one of the most hallowed of Hainanese chicken rice restaurants. But I suppose the world could be a better place with a little less jellied fat anyhow.

The sauces were just fine — it’s hard to screw up minced ginger and sweet, dark soy sauce. But the chili sauce was a too sweet and lacking in garlic for my tastes. And the rice was a little undercooked and not greasy enough — in Singapore, chicken rice is truly best when it feels and tastes as if each grain of rice is coated in fat.

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As for the rest of the menu, we did like the cocktails (all priced at $12) — especially the Milk Skywalker, which combined whiskey, Bailey’s Irish Cream, soy milk, black tea and boba pearls.

If all bubble teas packed such punch I would have been a convert a long time ago. (Please do not tell me how many calories are in this drink.)

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And the charmingly named Poontang Potstickers ($8) were incredibly addictive. They’re flat and slightly open-faced–perfectly crispy with a juicy pork filling and a black vinegar dip.

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I had to agree with Gael on the dryness of the fried chicken, however.

I’ve rarely met a plate of fried chicken that I didn’t love — and devour in seconds. But this version — it lingered long on our table.

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And while the idea of being served an assortment of pork rib, pork belly and oxtail in a dog bowl that’s been dubbed an “Everything But The Dog Meat Platter” (for $28) was cute — the concept turned out to ring a little truer than we liked. The pork belly was tasty but the rest was slightly tough to gnaw on.

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With the menu revamp, it’s unclear which dishes will emerge on the other side of Eddie’s changes. “I started going into the restaurant everyday and getting bored of eating
there,” Eddie says in an email, explaining his changes. “I think people
expect more out of me. I should be pushing the envelope more, not just
toiling over old recipes.”

For now, however, the experiments continue. And the Hainanese chicken rice, Eddie promises, will be back on the menu next week.

Xiao Ye, 198B Orchard Street; 212.777.7733; http://www.xiaoyenyc.com/